The Center for Legal Inclusiveness on June 18 hosted a virtual town hall meeting titled “A Dialogue about Allyship and Tough Conversations” in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May and the nationwide wave of protests that followed.
Hundreds participated in the two-hour online event. The five featured panelists were Judge Gary Jackson of the Denver County Court; State Rep. Kerry Tipper; trial lawyer Tyrone Glover of Colorado Attorneys Against Police Violence; Chris Martin, president of the Black Law Students’ Association at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law; and CLI CEO Sara Scott. The discussion was moderated by broadcaster and motivational speaker Reggie Rivers.
Glover, who practices civil rights law and criminal defense, kicked off the discussion with his assessment of the events that have followed Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement. “We are at this point where a confluence of factors have really set us up well for some real, meaningful change,” he said.
Those factors, Glover said, include a proliferation of video footage capturing incidents of police brutality. “Unfortunately, because of cell phones and body cameras, [we] have essentially a highlight reel of so much of the type of conduct that black folks have been telling everyone about for decades,” he said. “It’s now in high definition, and it’s now in the forefront of national consciousness.” People are also having “brave and bold conversations” about race on a deeper level than before, he said, including discussions about systemic racism and white privilege.
Jackson elaborated on the concept of white privilege. “When I think of the term ‘white privilege,’ I basically look at it as white people have had a 400-year head start on black people,” he said. The term refers to privileges given to white people solely because of skin color, he added, pointing to examples from his own life, such as the fact that when he graduated from the University of Colorado Law School in 1970, “there were no associate positions available to me at the Big Five law firms.” While his white classmates had access to those jobs, Jackson said, those firms would only hire a person of color if they had graduated from an elite law school like Harvard, Yale or UC Berkeley.
Jackson also cited the experience of his father who, despite being a master sergeant in World War II, was unable to get certain benefits of the GI Bill, such as a low-cost mortgage. He added his father was unable to get a driver’s license in Missouri, where he grew up, and didn’t obtain a license until he moved to Colorado after the war.
The discussion later turned to what it means to be an ally. “The black community seems to be split to me,” Scott said. “Half of us want to engage in a conversation about what it means to be an ally. And the other half of us want to say, ‘Go do your homework and come back and talk to me after you’ve done your homework.’”
“At CLI, we are happy to engage in every and any conversation so long as it’s coming from a place of really wanting to learn and really wanting to be an ally,” she said. “I think that to be an ally, you have to have two things: You have to have empathy, and you have to have an ability to learn and relearn.”
Scott added that bystander intervention is an important role for allies. If a person observes others saying or doing something racist, they should jump in and challenge the racist statements, she said, or at least intervene to distract from and stop the conversation.
Martin, the DU law student, spoke about the tendency to respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” as a way to distract from the challenges black people face. “I don’t really hear a whole lot of ‘All Lives Matter’ cries when there’s no call for ‘Black Lives Matter,’” he said. While all lives are important, he said, the urgency lies in the black community right now, “and we need to be OK with that.”
“If you have a house on fire, you put water on that one house. You’re not going to douse the whole neighborhood with water,” he said.
Panelists also discussed what is being done and what more could be done to address police brutality and racism. Tipper, a Democrat who represents Jefferson County, emphasized the importance of elections and urged people to pay attention to local races and, if they don’t see a candidate they like, to run for office themselves.
She pointed to Senate Bill 217, Colorado’s new police accountability legislation, as an example of the change that can come from local government and outside activist pressure. The bill requires law enforcement to wear body cameras and report certain data and incidents, and it eliminates the qualified immunity defense, allowing victims of police misconduct to sue individual officers.
While the bill limits the amount officers can personally be on the hook for, Glover applauded the lawmakers’ efforts to hold police accountable. “When you have a couple of officers in your precinct or in your department who have had to pay out large civil verdicts because of their conduct… maybe we’ll start to finally see a change in the officer culture in some of these precincts,” he said. However, Glover added, “there needs to be broader and even more sweeping… change, and an overall reevaluation of what it means to protect and serve our communities.”
According to Jackson, the public has started to accept the need for changes in policing as well as changes in the courts. The judicial branch is the branch of government the public has the most contact with, Jackson said, since people interact with the courts when they get a traffic ticket or a divorce or end up in probate court after someone has died.
“And that is why it is so important that we continue being activists, being anti-racists in terms of trying to make sure that the judiciary reflects the demographics of the citizens of Colorado,” he said. He urged the audience to speak out on the importance of a diverse judiciary and the critical need for more black and Latino judges and encouraged participants to serve on judicial nominating commissions.
During her closing remarks, Scott asked participants to think of nine things they could do to create change – a number chosen to recognize George Floyd, who was killed when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“It doesn’t have to be too complicated,” she said. “It could be getting nine people registered to vote. Sign up nine more mentees to your list. Help nine people fill out the Census.”
The town hall was sponsored by the Symposium on Race, and all six of Colorado’s diversity bar associations partnered with CLI to put on the event. CLI will be hosting a follow-up to last week’s event during its Virtual Annual Summit Aug. 10-14.
— Jessica Folker